How to Read Cases | Law Study Skills

Posted by Catherine Robinson on

8-min read

This article was adapted from the sample chapter of my eBook: How to Get a First in Law.

Do I Need to Read Cases?

There is a rite of passage when you start law school that is very well known to law students everywhere. You will be presented with a never-ending list of cases that your lecturer assures you are absolutely vital to read. If you don’t? Prepare for failure, chaos, destruction, famine, nuclear apocalypse, and the list goes on.

Except the truth is: it is practically impossible to read every case your lecturer tells you to. It’s even less possible to read and absorb the information in all those cases. Think of a sponge; it can only absorb so much water before it reaches full capacity. In a way, your mind is like this as it can only absorb a certain amount of knowledge each day. When studying for a law degree, there is so, so much to learn that it makes absolutely no sense to use up much of your daily brain capacity wading through tomes upon tomes of case law.

That time would be much better spent going through your lecture handouts and textbook reading. This way, you can actually gain an understanding of the case law in context. Plus, the facts of individual cases are rarely relevant in an exam scenario. You simply won’t have time to write about the facts of all the cases you’ll need to mention. Also, you are likely to get marked down for irrelevance if you go into too much detail on the facts, which is extremely annoying given that your lecturers will have made it sound imperative that you read and understand hundreds of cases in intimate detail.


how to get a first in law
How to Get a First in Law


Should I Read Case Summaries?

In a nutshell, yes. You can find lots of good sources of case summaries online, however, they often appear on a single webpage without any context so it’s hard to see how they fit into the area of law you’re studying. For this reason, casebooks are much more illuminative. They will have been written in a logical order that makes it (relatively) easy to understand how the cases and principles fit into the wider area of law. They will also include the relevant excerpts from the cases themselves, rather than just paraphrased summaries.

Reading case summaries rather than full cases will allow you to quickly get to grips with the legal principles from the cases, as well as some of the background facts that give the principles context. However, for many cases, simply knowing the principle is enough. For example, one of the key principles in Contract Law is that advertisements are generally considered to be invitations to treat rather than offers. The authority (case) for this principle is Partridge v Crittenden. The facts of the case really offer no support at all in understanding the principle. All you need to know is that very simple principle by itself. So, a lot of the time, you won’t even need to read case summaries. Instead, you must memorise the key principles and which cases to cite as authority for those principles. For a step-by-step guide on how you can drastically cut down your revision time while boosting your knowledge and retention of the law, check out my comprehensive guide to achieving a first class degree in law.

How to Read and Understand Cases

All that being said, there will be certain circumstances under which you will need to look up the full cases *sigh*. For example, you will need to look up the cases if you are doing a moot, writing a case note as an assignment, or just want to know a particular case in more detail.

You will also need to look up cases if the module you are studying doesn’t have many key cases. For example, in Constitutional Law, it will be important to at least attempt to read through the Miller judgments.

As such, I shall now take you through the steps you can follow to try get some sense out of these long-winded, overly complicated, often pretentious, and unnecessarily over-claused judgments. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you aren’t going to be able to fully understand the judgment of the first case you ever read, or even the 10th. Reading and understanding cases is a skill that needs to be honed. Not only are you trying to make sense of very difficult and nuanced concepts, you’re also likely to be reading words that are completely alien to you. It is like learning a new language. So my first piece of advice is this: whenever you come across a word you don’t know, whether in a case or in your textbook, look it up. Don’t just move on thinking you’ll never see such a silly word again, because these words will come up time and time again. This means you can pick up all the legal jargon quite quickly, as long as you look up each word at the time you spot it. I wouldn’t bother buying a legal dictionary – just google it. One of my lecturers told us that we should buy the Oxford Legal Dictionary. I probably opened it twice in total. Another £12 I’ll never get back.

If you go to a lecturer for help on reading cases, or if you look up any of the orthodox advice, they will usually start out by telling you that you need to ‘read smart’, but then fail to divulge exactly what that means. The reason they can’t explain what it means is because the technique you use when reading smart will differ depending on what your aim is. As such, I’ll go through a few situations in which you will need to look up a full case, and I’ll then explain how you can ‘read smart’ for each.

Reading a Case for Your Own Knowledge

If you’ve poured over your lecture handouts, textbooks and casebooks yet have been left wondering what exactly happened in a particular case, then it may be time to bust out the law reports (or Westlaw / LexisNexis). In this situation, your aim would be to fill in any gaps in your knowledge and gain a better understanding of a particular legal principle. For this reason, you can skip through much of the judgment.

I would start off by reading the headnote, which should contain a summary of the facts and a brief statement of what the court decided. Having gained a broad understanding of what’s what, it’s time to get out the microscope. In any case, there will be a lot of guff that you don’t need to know and won’t aid your understanding of the case. The skill comes in being able to bypass all the rubbish and get straight to the reasoning behind the case.

In order to do this, you should use CTRL-F and search through the case for any keywords. For example, if you were to look up the Miller 1 case in order to work out what the court said about the devolutionary settlement, you could search ‘Scotland Act’, ‘devolution’, ‘parliamentary sovereignty’, ‘referendum’, etc. In doing this, you’ll be able to sift out the exact parts you’re looking for without wasting time.

If you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t know anything about the case so I don’t know what to search for’, then you’re starting in the wrong place. You should firstly look up the case in your textbook/casebook/lecture handout so you have a broad understanding of what the case is about and what area of law it is relevant to. You can then search through the judgment using keywords from that area of law.

Reading a Case to Write a Case Note

Another reason you may need to look up a case is if you’re writing a case note on it for one of your assessments. I would not recommend writing a case note just for your general revision or reading.

Again, the starting point here should be your textbooks/casebooks/lecture handouts so that you can gain a general understanding of the facts. Having completed that preliminary research, you must now consider the structure of your case note. There is little point in reading the case in full before you’ve planned out your structure as you won’t be reading with purpose. The best way of ensuring that you actually take in what you’re reading is to make your reading active. You can do this by setting an objective for your reading and therefore constantly consider whether the part of the judgment you’re looking at fulfils that objective.

Let me explain what I mean. If you’re writing a case note, you generally need to cover nine things:

  • Case name and citation
  • Court and judges
  • Parties
  • Material facts
  • Question(s) of law
  • Decision
  • Detailed reasons for the decision
  • The ratio decidendi

Therefore, you should work through this list one step at a time and find the relevant info for each section. I.e. you can set your first objective as being finding the case name and citation. That should be fairly straightforward. Having got that written down, as well as the other ‘admin’ parts of the case note, you can move onto the trickier stuff like working out how to summarise the facts of the case. In doing this, constantly ask yourself if the particular part of the judgment you’re reading is a crucial fact that gave rise to the legal issue. If it is, make a note of it (or copy and paste).

Having collated all the info you need for each of the nine sections of your case note, the next step would be condensing all that information into a succinct, digestible fact file. The best way of achieving this is to write in very short, simple sentences.

When deciding whether a particular part of your case note is relevant, follow this simple rule: if in doubt, cut it out.

How to Read Cases Faster

You can cut out a substantial amount of time and effort if you read with purpose. As mentioned, I would not advise reading cases in full unless you absolutely have to, or you think it will aid your understanding of a legal principle. However, if you are dead set on reading a full case, try and keep in mind exactly what you want to get out of it. Don’t allow yourself to get side-tracked by the details and side issues of the case. Keep a laser focus by constantly considering whether the part of the judgment you’re reading answers your question/objective. If it doesn’t, fast forward your reading; skim through the judgment quicker until you find a piece that does provide answers to your questions, then slow your reading down. Reading cases in full is a continual process of speeding up and slowing down your reading based on how relevant to your objective your brain has flagged up each section as being. This may sound like a superhuman effort, but trust me, it’s a lot easier than trying to take in a case while you’re just mindlessly reading it or while you’re skim-reading the whole thing at a constant speed.

How to Read Cases Effectively

This is probably the second most common question I get, after the question of how to read cases faster. The answer I give is a combination of everything I’ve told you so far. There are a few rules to follow if you want to read cases effectively.

  • If you don’t need to read a case, then don’t. The most important aspect of reading effectively is knowing when you don’t need to read a case in full. As mentioned, this rule will typically apply for almost all the cases you will come across during your law degree. You usually just need to know the principle of the case, although the facts can sometimes come in handy to aid your understanding. This can be achieved by reading your lecture handout/textbook/casebook.
  • If you do need to look up a case as you’re still unsure what was decided, use CTRL-F to search through the case until you find the answers to your questions. If you’re still unsure, try looking up a case comment in a law journal (on Westlaw or Lexis Library) as the author may be able to explain the judgment more clearly than the judges could.
  • If a module requires you to be familiar with the details of a case, including what each judge opined and concluded, then you may need to read the whole thing, unfortunately. In doing this, you can adopt the above method for speed reading through a case. Keep in mind a few key questions you have about the case and speed up/slow down your reading depending on how well the section you’re looking at answers your questions. As you're reading through the case, copy and paste any of the relevant sections into a word document.

Case-overload is real. Don’t let the volume of cases get you down, instead set yourself manageable goals and gradually work your way through all the content. I have a free law study timetable you can download here that may help you organise your reading.

I have also written an eBook on everything I did to achieve a first in my law degree. It guides you through the fastest and most effective way of making revision notes, as well as how you can use these notes to relatively quickly memorise everything you need to know. It also covers essay writing and the best way to approach exams. The eBook can be found here.

Please feel free to leave a comment if there's anything you'd like clarifying!


how to get a first in law


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